The Butler Did It: A Passion for Mystery Novels

As some of you may know, both my parents had master’s degrees in library science from Columbia University. Though my father was only briefly employed as a librarian, it was my mother’s life-long profession, first at the main branch of the New York Public Library, and later in life, at the Wandell Middle School in Saddle River, New Jersey. I didn’t realize as a child that everyone didn’t go to the public library on Saturday mornings as a family, or that it was in any way unusual for one’s mother to bring library books home from work all the time for you to read.

Which is to say that I grew up in an extraordinarily bookish family. Other families’ homes had wallpaper; we had bookcases. On those bookcases were a panoply of the best literature in the English language; the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Milton, and the novels of Dickens, Austen and the Brontes, to name but a few.

Despite many moves in the forty-one years since I left home I still own some of the books from those shelves. Just glancing at the bookcase near me as I write this I can see well-bound hardcover copies of the following books from my childhood home: The Life of Emerson by Van Wyck Brooks, Bullfinch’s Mythology, Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Writings of Thomas Paine, Toynbee’s A Study of History, Whitman’s Blades of Grass, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Saga, and Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, not to mention Modern English Usage by Fowler and the 1949 Book of Common Prayer, both of which were authoritative on some matters.

From that selection you get the kind of books that predominated in our household, and it wouldn’t be too misleading to say that the Floyd brows were pretty high when it came to books.

Nonetheless, there was a favorite genre well represented in our home that might not pass the Great Works test, and that was the “Whodunit.” And this is what my paper tonight is about: a personal memoir of my love for mystery novels, a bit of history about this sprawling genre, and finally a barefoot romp through some of my favorites.

Like much in life it all began in my childhood. On other bookshelves in our home, usually in bedrooms, were other books than the ones I have mentioned, usually in paperback. Here were titles by people such as Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers. Like this sample, most of these preferred authors were women and almost all of them were British.

And the subgenre of crime fiction that their characters inhabited often took place in secluded English country houses, where the aristocratic guests had nothing better to do than to murder, be murdered, suspect and be suspected of murder. Hence my title “The Butler Did It!” Too transparent perhaps for a Monday evening Club title, but sometimes in whodunits things are hidden in plain sight, and besides, can anyone ever remember a mystery tale when the butler actually did it? I think not.

My family, and especially my mother, loved what she called “murder mysteries.” And the mysteries she loved were largely from the period that is called “The Golden Age” of detective fiction, written during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, when she came of age.

Christie, Tey, March, Sayers, and, Marjorie Allingham were the queens of British detective fiction. Ngaio Marsh was actually from New Zealand, but was more English than the English, and my mother had a very British friend from New Zealand so that may have been the connection.

Where were the men? There were British men who also wrote whodunits in this period, such as Michael Innes, Nicholas Blake, and Edmund Crispin, but I don’t remember seeing their titles on our shelves.

And there were Americans, too, during the Golden Age, such as S. S. Van Dine, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen, but they imitated the “English” style. My father read Ellery Queen.

Other Americans, such as Rex Stout (my father’s favorite), Clayton Rawson, and Earl Derr Biggers, aimed for a more “American” style.

But the favorite in our house was Dorothy Sayers, whom I later learned was also a gifted Christian theologian. Her detective, the eccentric Lord Peter Whimsey, was rich and dashing, and had a recurrent love interest in the proto-feminist Harriet Vine. My mother, an avid Anglophile and a devout Episcopalian, read these books about and dreamed of an England she would never get to visit. She died at age 53 in 1967, and I have often thought how much she would have liked the novels of P. D. James, with her titles from the Book of Common Prayer.

So I first came to England in the spring of 1989, for my first sabbatical, to Mansfield College, Oxford. There, on May Day, I went with Martha and my two small children to Magdalen College at daybreak to hear the choristers sing from the tower and watch the revelers, a scene I first saw in my imagination when reading Sayers masterful Gaudy Night. We woke in the dark with our sleepy children, made our way through the dark streets of Oxford, and stood with the throngs below the tower at dawn. There were students in dress suits and ball gowns, up all night since the previous evening’s gaudy, many tipsy and some wet and muddy from a tip in the Chartwell while punting. There were Morris dancers, and folks dressed up like animals and trees. It was fifty years later than the Oxford that Sayers had written about, but many things were as she described. My mother would have been thrilled.

For those who say that genre fiction isn’t art I challenge them to read Gaudy Night. My older sister Megan took on that very challenge when she did her thesis at Vassar on “Dorothy Sayers As Art.” The writing is first rate, the plot intricate, and the characters interesting. It just happens to be a whodunit.

But there was another side to this genre during the Golden Age which was neither highbrow nor high church, and that wasn’t found in our house at all, as far as I know. That discovery came to me by way of my younger brother Bill, who during the 70’s was a New York cabdriver and sometimes student at Hunter College, and took a course on the American noir novels of the 30’s and 40’s.

These books were a distinctively American reaction to the gentility of the genre in its British form. In the hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the victim was more likely a pimp or a bootlegger than a gentleman or a vicar, and the settings were not in English country homes, but in the urban mean streets of America, usually at night. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s Sam Spade and Continental Op had small, dark, dingy offices, and kept a bottle of whiskey in the second drawer. The gun was in the top drawer. Hammett and Chandler’s books, like Sayers, are not only great reads, but also great writing.

But there is noir and then there is noir! Not all of this sub-genre aspired to be great literature. At the lower end were the pulp novels, typified by Mickey Spillane, with titles like I Love My Gun. Pulp fiction was full of blood and sex, and spare on character development. I recall from years ago a National Lampoon satire on pulps that imagined detective Mike Hammer’s inner monologue like this: “I opened the door and there was a blond pointing two thirty-eights right at me, and a gun!” Not far from the truth.

I will talk about the changing role of women in the genre a bit later, but in the days of American pulp the roles were somewhat confined. There was the capable nurturing secretary with a not-so-secret crush on the boss, think Della Street, there was the hooker with the heart of gold, who was often the corpse, there was the widow in distress, and the femme fatale, sometimes combined, think Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

From Dorothy Sayers to Mickey Spillane illustrates that crime fiction is a great sprawling genre that covers a wide spectrum of sub-genres. The British whodunit and the LA police procedural share the same genus, but are of a different species.

So how did it all begin? Although the mystery genre is as old as the apocryphal Susanna and the Elders in some versions of the Book of Daniel, chapter 15, and the ancient Greek play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, its evolution into the novels and stories we know today is fairly recent.

Many believe the first modern mystery story to be The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe written in 1841, which featured the first fictional detective, the eccentric and brilliant C. Auguste Dupin. Poe’s basic plot formula has been successful ever since, a brilliant detective committed to ascertaining the truth, and doing so through a process involving intuition, observation and inference. He followed with further Dupin tales: “The Mystery of Marie Roget” in 1843, and “The Purloined Letter” in 1844.

“The Mystery of Marie Roget” is particularly interesting because it is a barely fictionalized account based on Poe’s theory of what happened to the real-life Mary Cecilia Rogers. The style of the analysis, with its attention to forensic detail, makes it a precursor and perhaps inspiration for the stories about the most famous of all fictional detectives, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, about whom we had a terrific paper many years ago from David Noyes.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins came along in 1860. Collins wrote several more in this genre, including The Moonstone in 1868, which many believe is his masterpiece. T. S. Eliot called it “the first and greatest of English detective novels.” Whatever else its merits, The Moonstone can claim to have established several classic features of the twentieth-century detective story, so well known to us all. There is a country house robbery, an “inside job,” a celebrated investigator, bungling local constabulary, detective enquiries, false suspects, the “least likely suspect,” a rudimentary “locked room” murder, a reconstruction of the crime, and a final twist in the plot.

The false suspect device is called a “red herring, ” which can be any narrative element intended to distract the reader from a more important event in the plot, often a twist ending. The term “red herring” originates from the tradition whereby young hunting dogs in Britain were trained to follow a scent with the use of a kippered, that is salted and smoked, hence red, herring. This pungent fish would be dragged across a trail until the puppy learned to follow the scent. Later, when the dog was being trained to follow the faint odor of a fox or a badger, the trainer would drag a red herring, which has a much stronger odor, across the animal’s trail at right angles. The dog would eventually learn to follow the original scent rather than the stronger scent. So a red herring is a device in crime fiction to throw someone off the scent of the real criminal.

Poe and Collins were joined by another literary figure in the evolution of the modern mystery. Charles Dickens has a sub-plot in the vast novel Bleak House, written in1853. A conniving lawyer named Tulkinghorn is murdered in his office late one night, and the crime is investigated by Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan police force. Numerous characters appeared on the staircase leading to Tulkinghorn’s office that night, some of them in disguise, and Inspector Bucket must penetrate these mysteries to identify the murderer. We tend to think of Dickens as high literature, but much of his output was serialized in magazines, and he wrote chapters to meet these deadlines.

These 19th century prototypes set the stage for the golden age to come. The 20th century is a story of how the crime genre evolved to meet changing technologies. By the turn of the century the genre began to expand with the development of dime novels and pulp magazines.

An important contribution to the genre in the 1920s was the development of the juvenile mystery by Edward Stratemeyer. You may never have heard of him, but chances are you have read one or more of his books. Stratemeyer originally developed and wrote both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries written under the Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene pseudonyms, respectively, and later written by his daughter, Harriet S. Adams, and other authors. His influence in preparing young reader for a life of mystery reading is incalculable

But though you may never have heard of Stratemeyer, there is one writer from the 20’s you have all heard of: Agatha Christie. Christie is the best selling author of all time. Only the Bible has sold more copies than her books.  Her life story is itself a bit of a mystery.

She was born Agatha Miller in Devon, England to an American father and an English mother, but she never claimed United States citizenship. Her father died when she was eleven years old, and her mother taught her at home, encouraging her to write at a very young age. Her first marriage, an unhappy one, was in 1914 to Colonel Archibald Christie, an aviator in the Royal Flying Corps. They divorced in 1928; two years after Agatha discovered her husband was having an affair. It was during this marriage that she published her first novel in 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

During World War I she worked at a hospital and then a pharmacy, jobs that influenced her work, for many of the murders in her books are carried out with poison.

A bizarre incident in her life could have come right out of one of her books. On December 8, 1926, while living in Sunningdale in Berkshire, she disappeared for ten days, causing a flurry of interest in the press. Her car was found abandoned in a chalk pit in Newland’s Corner, Surrey. She was eventually found at the Harrogate Hydro hotel under the name of the woman with whom her husband had recently admitted to having an affair.

She had apparently suffered a nervous breakdown and a rare fugue state caused by the death of her mother and her husband’s infidelity. She could not recount any information as to her disappearance due to amnesia, and opinions then and now are divided as to whether this was a publicity stunt.

In 1930, Christie married the archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. Her travels with Mallowan contributed background to several of her novels set in the Middle East. Other novels, such as Ten Little Indians (also known as And Then There Were None) were set in and around Torquay, Devon, where she was born.

I reread that one while visiting my daughter at Christmas, having forgot who the killer was. The plot is simple: ten guests, strangers to each other, are invited to be the guest of a man they do not know on a deserted island off the coast of Devon. The host never appears and the guests are killed off, one by one, causing rising panic, until literally “then there were none.” If you haven’t read it you must.

Her 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express was written in the Hotel Pera Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, the southern terminus of the railway, and to this day the hotel maintains Christie’s room as a memorial to her.

And what was the inspiration for those country houses? First there is the Greenway Estate in Devon, acquired by the couple as a summer residence in 1938, which is now in the care of the National Trust. Then there was Abney Hall in Cheshire, which was owned by her brother-in-law. She based at least two of her stories on Abney Hall: the short story “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” which is in the story collection of the same name and the novel After the Funeral. Abney became Agatha’s greatest inspiration for country-house life, with all the servants and grandeur which have been woven into her plots. The descriptions of the fictional Styles, Chimneys, Stoneygates and the other houses in her stories are mostly Abney in various forms.

In 1971 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and died on January 12, 1976, at age 85, from natural causes, not poison.

Agatha Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920 and introduced her long-running character, the dandified Belgium detective Hercule Poirot, who appeared in 33 of Christie’s novels and 54 short stories.

Her other well known detective, the spinster Miss Marple, was introduced in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930, and was based loosely on Christie’s grandmother.

During World War II, Christie wrote two novels intended as the last cases of these two great detectives, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, respectively. They were Curtain and Sleeping Murder. Both books were sealed in a bank vault for over thirty years, and were released for publication by Christie only at the end of her life, when she realized that she could not write any more novels.

Like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Christie was to become increasingly tired of her detective, Poirot. In fact, by the end of the 1930s, Christie confided to her diary that she was finding Poirot “insufferable,” and by the 1960s she felt that he was an “an egocentric creep.” However, unlike Conan Doyle, she resisted the temptation to kill her detective off while he was still popular. She saw herself as an entertainer whose job was to produce what the public liked, and what the public liked was Poirot.

In contrast, Christie was fond of Miss Marple. However it is interesting to note that the Belgian detective’s titles outnumber the Marple titles by more than two to one. This is largely because Christie wrote numerous Poirot novels early in her career, while The Murder at the Vicarage remained the sole Marple novel until the 1940s. Christie never wrote a novel or short story featuring both Poirot and Miss Marple.

Incidentally, Hercule Poirot is the only fictional character to have been given an obituary in The New York Times, following the publication of Curtain in 1975.

Christie’s stage play, The Mousetrap, holds the record for the longest initial run in the world, opening at the Ambassadors Theatre in London November 25, 1952, and is still running after more than 23,000 performances.

So I started this paper talking about books, but already I have referred to a play and to magazines. While it is true that the crime genre begins as a literary one, it has continually adapted to new media. Magazines were for a time it’s most successful format, in the 30s and 40s. Then it moved to radio, a short-live heyday that will be remembered by some in this group with programs such as The Shadow and The Green Hornet.

Pulp magazines decreased in popularity in the 1950s with the rise of television so much that the numerous titles available then are reduced to two today: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Mystery Magazine“ and Ellery Queen’s “Mystery Magazine.” Comic books, and more recently, graphic novels, have also embraced crime genre. The movies gave us Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and Hollywood turned to Hammett and Chandler for The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and the other noir films of the early postwar years.

But it has been television that really expanded the audience for the crime genre, giving us Perry Mason, Columbo, Kojak, Quincy, Magnum, Monk, Spenser, and, of course, Jessica Fletcher. More recently we have a host of police procedural shows like Law and Order and the various CSIs, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Shield, and The Wire.

Then of course, there was Mystery on PBS, now sadly unplugged, but in its day acquainting a wide public to literary characters such as Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Adam Dalgliesh, Jules Maigret, Brother Caedfel, and Inspector Morse. Inspector Morse and Sgt. Lewis were always running through scenes from my Oxford days.

More recently Mystery gave us DCI Jane Tennison, a strong woman detective in Prime Suspect, a tension-filled police procedural. Here was a shift, for the crime genre, despite its great women writers, has long been a man’s world. In the 70s and 80s the blonds, broads and bimbos of pulp fiction disappeared and strong, smart, and tough women detectives appeared in the writings of Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. Paretsky’s Private Eye, V. I. Warshawski would kick-box Mike Hammer’s gun out of his hand, and have him pinned to the ground with one knee, quicker than you can say fedora. V. I. drinks Black Label, breaks into houses to get clues, and enjoys her sex life. She also pays attention to her clothes, and sings along with opera on the radio. It is safe to say she reflects the changing roles for women.

And on television we had Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, who was perhaps a bit more like Miss Marple than she was like Ms. Warshawksi. Fletcher, a writer herself of mysteries, provides a good example of the problem of an amateur detective, for how many of us randomly discover two or three corpses a year in our daily round?

Such implausibility is not a new problem. One commentator has described the quiet little village of St. Mary Mead, where Jane Marple did her deductive magic, as having “put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Similarly, Jessica Fletcher is confronted with bodies wherever she goes. Not only that, but “over the years people who have met violent deaths have also piled up in the streets of Cabot Cove, Maine, the cozy little village where she lives. ”

This implausibility is satirized frequently on the TV show Monk, in which the main character, Adrian Monk, is frequently accused of being a “bad luck charm” and a “murder magnet” as the result of the frequency with which otherwise normal people attempt to pull off elaborate schemes for perfect murders when he is in the vicinity. This is why most crime heroes are more plausibly professional investigators, cops or forensic specialists.

Another solution to the implausibility issue is celebrity. Some amateurs, like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, become so well known to the public that they are sought out from far and wide to solve crimes. Wolfe rarely leaves his orchid festooned New York apartment, but must rely on the legwork of his able assistant Archie Goodwin.

This brings us to the issue of sidekicks, a regular feature of the genre. Side kicks are as old as Cervantes, but the mystery archetype is, of course, Dr. John Watson, foil to Sherlock Holmes. The sidekick is a stand-in for the reader, and allows the detective to share his thoughts out loud so we can be privy to them. Poirot has Captain Arthur Hastings, Morse has Sgt. Robbie Lewis, and Batman has Robin.

In the words of mystery encyclopediast William L. De Andrea, “Watson also serves the important function of catalyst for Holmes’s mental processes. … From the writer’s point of view, Conan Doyle knew the importance of having someone to whom the detective can make enigmatic remarks, a consciousness that’s privy to facts in the case without being in on the conclusions drawn from them until the proper time. Any character who performs these functions in a mystery story has come to be known as a ‘Watson’.”

In 1929, English crime writer and critic Ronald Knox stated as one of his rules for fledgling writers of detective fiction that “the stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.”

And besides a sidekick you need other helpers and colleague. If you happen to not be a detective you may need one to do your legwork. So Defense Attorney Perry Mason has Paul Drake, and Barrister for the Defense Horace Rumpole has F. I. G. (Fig) Newton.

Then there are mentors. In the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman, Joe Leaphorn is the wise old detective, and Jim Chee, the brash young cop. Inspector Alan Banks goes to see his old boss, and ruminates on the case while they put odd shaped stones into a Yorkshire dry wall.

Technology, too, has rendered many of the stock devices implausible.

With the predominance of cell phones, many of the predicaments that brought danger are much less likely. One can, of course, avoid the issue of technology altogether by writing an historical crime novel. As global interconnectedness makes legitimate suspense more difficult to achieve, several writers, including Elizabeth Peters, P. C. Doherty, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis, have set their characters in some former period. Such a strategy forces the protagonist to rely on more inventive means of investigation, lacking as they do the scientific tools available to modern detectives.

Another medium for the crime genre is the board game Clue, originally published as Cluedo in the United Kingdom in 1949. It was devised by Anthony E. Pratt, a solicitor’s clerk and part-time clown from Birmingham, England. In North America it became Clue and was published by Parker Brothers. It was, naturally, a favorite of my family.

The game is set in a mansion, with the board divided into different rooms. The players each represent a character who is a guest staying at this house, whose owner, Dr. Black (Mr. Boddy in the North American version), has been found murdered. Players attempt to solve the murder, by guessing the three components of Suspect, Weapon, and Room, as in “Miss Scarlet with the lead pipe in the conservatory.”

So what about my favorites? It is hard to decide since there are so many. There is a category I call airport reading, authors famous enough to command a spot at the terminal book kiosk or store. I tend to buy by destination. So on my many trips to Arizona I read most of the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman. If I’m going to Florida I read the zany novels of Carl Hiassen, with his corrupt politicians and crooked contractors and insane mobsters. If I’m going to England I read the fast-paced racehorse novels of Russ Francis. Elmore Leonard is a favorite of the critics, and of airport booksellers, so you can almost always find those. Any of these would be worthy candidates. There are also old favorites whose series I zoomed through until there were none left, like Spenser and Morse.

But I will limit it to three. The first is one you may not know, but should, and that is Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series. Stephen King calls Robinson the best crime writer today, and the venerable Marilyn Stasio, whose weekly crime column in The New York Times Book Review is canonical, wrote “P.D. James, Reginald Hill and Ruth Rendell may be writing as fast as they can. But what are devotees of the English country mystery supposed to be reading between times? A superior new series by Peter Robinson should do nicely.”

Chief Inspector Alan Banks is a former London cop who hated his job and his life, and moved his wife and two small children to the quiet of the Yorkshire countryside. This is not the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales of All Creatures Great and Small, but the rugged Yorkshire Moors. There, in the sleepy fictional town of Eastvale, not surprisingly to those of us acquainted with the genre, corpses turn up with regularity.

The first novel is Gallow’s View, and it is worth starting at the beginning for Banks grows and evolves, as does Robinson’s writing. The books are very time-specific, as Banks listens to the appropriate popular music, watches his children grow and his marriage wither from the acids of domesticity.

Banks is a solitary man, fond of listening to the music of Van Morrison and drinking Laphroig single malt scotch. Robinson’s best book is In A Dry Season, made into TV movie for Mystery. Banks is not a one-dimensional character, but a complex Everyman with financial worries and fragile relationships. Be warned: there is a fair amount of gruesome violence and steamy sex in these books, but if that doesn’t put you off, gives Banks a try. It is a series one can stay with, there are sixteen so far, and you may feel sad when you’re done with them.

My second nominee is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, begun in 1992 with Black Echo and now numbering thirteen. Harry Bosch is an LA policeman, a Vietnam vet and the son of a murdered prostitute whose mother named him after the 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch grew up in orphanages, foster homes and youth halls, and later ran away to join the army, where he was a tunnel rat with the 25th Infantry Division, venturing into the Vietcong maze of tunnels.

At the age of 18 Bosch went AWOL from the army while in Hawaii, and came stateside and joined the LAPD. He was assigned to the prestigious Robbery Homicide Division, where he worked for five years, until he was drummed out by an Internal Affairs Investigation involving the shooting of a suspect, who was later linked to nine murders.

Bosch, as you may have deduced by now, has a problem with authority. He is always in conflict with superiors, politicians, and/or the FBI. He has an innate sense for what is right in each case, linked with little regard for his career. This quality is described as relentless.

Bosch lives on a house on stilts in the Hollywood Hills he bought with the money he got after a TV mini-series was based on him and he was hired as a technical advisor. Bosch is a serial monogamist, with a different love interest in each book, except for a short-lived marriage to an FBI agent.

You don’t like Bosch as much as Banks, and he is much more damaged, but there is something fascinating about him, and the books are fast paced and full of twists and turns.

If both Banks and Bosh are hard-boiled, my final candidate is just fun. He is neither a cop nor a detective, and, although he always refers to his own brilliance in the long ago Penge Bungalow murders, a murder seldom happens in these tales. There is no sex and little violence, and yet in some ways this is my favorite series of them all. They are not novels, and rather than getting you across a transcontinental or transatlantic flight, they are better suited to the 20 minutes between getting in bed and turning out the light.

I am referring to Horace Rumpole, the aging barrister in John Mortimer’s series of short stories and long-running TV show “Rumpole of the Bailey. Unlike most crime genre, Rumpole began as a stage play, and the TV series and then the stories followed.

John Mortimer, a barrister and writer, has written several novels, Paradise Postponed, a satire on post-war Britain, and Summer’s Lease, a funny tale about Brits renting a villa in Tuscany, or “Chiantishire” as he calls it. He also wrote the screenplay for Brideshead Revisited. But his lasting legacy will be the character of Horace Rumpole and the franchise around him. Mortimer was a practicing barrister when he wrote Rumpole, getting up early to write before work.

What Rumpole shares with Banks and Bosch is an antagonism toward authority. He refuses all efforts by family, friends and colleagues to give up the disrespectable work of defense to be a Queen’s counsel, or circuit judge, QC’s and CJ’s respectively, or as Rumpole calls them, “queer customers” and “circus judges.”

His wife of many years, Hilda, or She Who Must Be Obeyed, as Rumpole secretly calls her, shares his domestic bliss in a cavernous, under-heated mansion flat at 25B Froxbury Court, Gloucester Road, London. Hilda never lets Rumpole forget that her daddy (as she calls him), C.H. Wystan, was head of Rumpole’s chambers. The inference is that she expected better things from her husband.

Rumpole, on the other hand, enjoys the simple pleasure of defending his clients at The Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court. There he takes on all defendants that will pay his fee.

Despite his affection for the criminal classes, Rumpole’s character is marked by a firm set of ethics. Rumpole’s credo is to “never plead guilty”, and he refuses to prosecute (there was one exception, but he proved that the defendant was innocent and then reaffirmed, “from now on, Rumpole only defends”). This belief also prevents him from making deals that involve pleading guilty to lesser charges.

Many of his briefs involve the large extended Timson clan, a family of “minor South London villains”. The Timsons, who specialize in non-violent petty theft, often turn to Rumpole to defend them from their latest brush with the law. In one of his few murder cases, Rumpole defends a Timson with the defense that no self-respecting Timson would carry a gun to a crime. He acknowledged that the Timsons might from time to time nick a pallet of frozen fish or a shipment of CD players carelessly left on the back of an open lorry, but murder, never. For Rumpole there is, then, honor among thieves.

Another time he is brought in to a murder case because the defendant’s family wants him out of the way, and knows that Rumpole never pleads guilty or plea-bargains. Rumpole find a way to win that one too.

His greatest hour was the aforementioned Penge Bungalow Murders, where he wins a triumph based on his extensive knowledge of bloodstains and typewriters.

Cross-examination is one of his favorite activities and he disdains barristers who lack either the skill or courage to ask the right questions. His courtroom zeal gets him into trouble from time to time. More than once, his investigations reveal more than his client wants him to know. Rumpole’s most chancy encounters stem from arguing with judges, particularly those who seem to believe that being on trial implies guilt or that the police are infallible.

Rumpole enjoys smoking inexpensive small cigars, drinking cheap red wine, and indulging in a diet of fried foods, overboiled vegetables, cheese sandwiches, and steak and kidney pudding. On a daily basis he visits “Pommeroy’s,” a wine bar located on Fleet Street within walking distance of both the Old Bailey and his law office at Equity Court, and at which he contributes regularly to an ever-increasing bar tab by purchasing glasses of red wine of a questionable quality, which he refers to as either “Cooking Claret”, “Pommeroy’s Plonk”, “Pommeroy’s Very Ordinary”, “Chateau Thames Embankment”, or “Chateau Fleet Street.” When Hilda goes away to visit her old school chum Dodo McIntosh, Rumpole brings a bottle home, and flicks his ashes on the hearthrug. Such are the quotidian pleasures of Horace Rumpole.

His cigar smoking is often the subject of debate within his chambers, especially in his cold war with Sam Ballard, the prissy evangelical head of chambers. Rumpole’s peers sometimes criticize his attire, noting his old battered hat, imperfectly aligned clothes, cigar ash trailing down his waistcoat and faded barrister’s wig, “bought second hand from a former Chief Justice of Tonga” (or the Windward Islands—Rumpole is occasionally an unreliable narrator.)

A devotee of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, Rumpole often quotes Wordsworth, among others. He sometimes muses about giving it all up and moving to the Costa del Sol or Florida, but he never does, because he is Rumpole, and who else will fight as he does for the rights of defendants and the presumption of innocence, “that golden thread running through the seamless robe of British jurisprudence.”

So what is it I love about this genre? First of all it is wonderfully escapist. You can go to Oxford or Arizona or LA, without the expense of an airline ticket. The stories, unlike one’s life and work, have a clear-cut problem and an inevitable solution with lots of entertaining suspense in between.

And our protagonists are fearless, heroic, and dedicated to their vocation and principles with a passion and commitment rare in a secular age. They are knights errant on a mission for truth and justice against crime and evil.

Nearly without exception these crime fighters eschew higher ambition for the pleasure of doing their job well, despite the hampering and bungling of bosses and other authorities.

Like cowboys the crime hero is a solitary individualist fighting conformity and authority in a beauracratized world. They tell their bosses off with impunity. They charge into dangerous situations without a thought for their safety. They get to engage in all manner of trangressive behavior like shooting guns at people and participating in high-speed car chases without any legal consequences.

Besides, they are usually very clever people, attractive to the opposite sex, with interesting hobbies and a much more exciting life that anyone we actually know. So we live vicariously for a brief time in their imaginary world, and in the end, they catch the crook, and we feel better about the moral order. And if we guess whodunit, we feel superior to the benighted folks who didn’t figure it out, or perhaps thought that the butler did it.

(Presented to the Monday Evening Club by Richard L. Floyd on February 28, 2009)

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3 thoughts on “The Butler Did It: A Passion for Mystery Novels

  1. A very good account. I have read many of these. I missed my personal favorite, Father Brown, created by Chesterton. He is perhaps the most theological asute figure in all of detective fiction

  2. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for the well written article and for the recommendations. A few authors I have enjoyed that others may like as well:

    Robert B. Parker. I love the Boston/Eastern Mass settings
    Sharyn McCrumb. Great stories set in the southern Appalachians
    Georges Simenon. Classic police work set in Paris

    Peace,
    Dave

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